Many cities in the U.S. have both NHL and NFL teams. However, none have Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady — the GOAT, widely considered the best quarterback ever. When he arrived, the Tampa Bay Lightning were still reeling from their first-round sweep by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2019 postseason; their potential for future success was in doubt. The local media turned their full attention to the city’s new NFL mega superstar. The hockey team would have to wait.
Then the Lightning took revenge for their previous playoff disappointments and bulldozed their way through the 2020 postseason and brought the Stanley Cup back to Tampa. However, less than six months later, Brady is throwing the Lombardi Trophy from a boat during their Super Bowl parade celebration. How’s an NHL team supposed to compete with that? Well, to start, they win a second consecutive Cup and keep their fans engaged.
Game Attendance: The Brady Effect
Raymond James Stadium holds a little over 65,000 fans. But when Brady retired, then unretired, demand for tickets skyrocketed. Now, for this season, they are increasing the capacity of the stadium by 3,700 seats, bringing the total to nearly 70,000. According to PewterReport.com, the increase comes “just in time for one of the most anticipated seasons in Buccaneers history. Especially with Tom Brady back under center in 2022.” The Tampa Times has written extensively on attendance at their games since he became the starting quarterback, stating that, “In 2019, the year prior to Brady’s arrival, the Bucs ranked 30th in the NFL with an average home attendance of 51,898” (from ‘Bucs season tickets sold out as Raymond James Stadium returns to full capacity,’ Tampa Bay Times, June 17, 2021). Last season, every ticket was pre-sold before training camp even started, and this upcoming season is on a similar path.
Just as impressive, if not more so, the Lightning have sold out 280 consecutive home games during the regular season and playoffs (not counting the two shortened seasons) since March 26, 2015. It is the NHL’s longest active sellout streak. Amalie Arena holds 21,500 fans and thousands congregate in Thunder Alley outside of Amalie, to watch the team on TV.
How did hockey become so popular in Florida? The simple answer is owner Jeff Vinik. He bought the struggling franchise for $170 million in 2010, when they only had 2,000 full season-ticket holders. Twelve years later, the franchise is valued at $650 million, according to Forbes.
Washington Capitals owner Ted, Leonsis stated, “Jeff took an incredibly moribund franchise and turned it into the best team in professional sports” (from ‘How Jeff Vinik made the Lightning the NHL’s ‘gold standard’: The vow, the process and the patience,’ The Athletic, June 20, 2022).
Competition for Tampa Fans
Sports in Tampa is big. Not only do the Lightning have to compete with the NFL, but also with the MLB team, the Tampa Bay Rays, and the NBA’s Orlando Magic. In addition to professional sports, college football has always been huge throughout the entire state.
The top stories on the main sports section of the Tampa Tribune’s digital publication on Aug. 18, 2022, has no posts featuring hockey. Four of the stories relate to college football, three stories are dedicated to the Buccaneers, and one story covered the Rays. Granted, the hockey season is still two months away, but there must be something to discuss regarding the three-time Stanley Cup franchise that is worthy of front-page news.
The problem with all of the attention that the Buccaneers are receiving is that once Brady retires, the global limelight dims, if not extinguishes completely with the loss of their one big superstar. Although the team has many Pro-Bowl-caliber players who are gifted athletes, it’s their quarterback who generates all the buzz. The Lightning are more of a complete team with several superstars who can win games and even championships if one of the marquee players is out of the lineup.
I don’t see a clear future at the quarterback position once Brady leaves, and this ultimately will hurt the team’s chances to remain competitive. This is definitely an advantage for the Lightning, as their GM Julien BriseBois has positioned the team to be competitive for years to come by making smart trades, developing players in the farm system and spreading the wealth among their current players.
Champa Bay: A Run of Championships for the City
With a 17-game schedule, NFL games, and specifically the Super Bowl, are must-watch TV: part of the American culture. The grueling — and long — 82-game season for the NHL extends over six months before two full months of postseason play. Fans can lose interest, especially if their team has no chance of making the playoffs. By providing a good product and a fun, engaging game-day experience, the Lightning have been able to lure new fans and retain their loyal fans. Winning games is always good for business.
It’s rare when the Lightning and Buccaneers play on the same day, and it’s impossible for the Stanley Cup Final to interfere with NFL games. However, during the pandemic, the NHL playoffs were pushed back, and the 2020 Cup Final ran from Sept. 19-28, well into the NFL season. That fall, football fans were seeing what they had in their new quarterback and the Lightning had avenged their playoff demons and were partying on the Bay. The fans embraced both teams with as much enthusiasm as COVID-19 restrictions would allow.
The Tampa Bay area is one of the fastest growing communities in the country, with 3.22 million residents in the tri-county area of Tampa-St. Pete-Clearwater. There is room for all of the city’s sports teams to garner attention. By population, hockey fans (at least in the U.S.) are smaller than that for the other three major sports leagues. Although the passion and loyalty of hockey fans speak volumes about the game itself.
The Lightning have built a loyal fan base that can compete with Brady and the Bucs. During the last decade, the hockey team has reinvigorated downtown Tampa and made players household names outside their local market. With the chance to go to a fourth straight Stanley Cup Final, Amalie will be rocking with fans this season. Once Brady really does retire, I’d like to see the Bucs try to sell out 280 consecutive home games without him.